Republicans, who usually have the good sense to avoid fratricide, are engaged in perhaps the most vicious intramural squabble of the Bush presidency over the deal allowing Dubai Ports World to control operations at several major U.S. seaports. The controversy ignited in an instant and has now involved virtually every prominent Republican in Washington and a couple of Republican governors near the affected ports.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist vowed to introduce legislation to put the deal on hold, and House Speaker Denny Hastert roused briefly from hibernation to voice concern. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham rushed to the airwaves to claim that the administration was "tone deaf politically" and that now was no time "to outsource major port security to a foreign-based company." The president responded by promising to use his veto pen for the first time and hinted critics of the deal were anti-Arab. If this were a marriage, such a rapid escalation would be a signal that a couple needed therapy immediately or else there would be dish-throwing.
Congressional leaders are feeling cranky and neglected. Bush is always doing stuff without telling them, and they're always grumbling he doesn't recognize that they're up for re-election this year. So, it probably feels very satisfying to push back at him for a change. And their opposition also seems like smart politics, at least superficially. Congressional Republicans' chief message going into the midterm elections is that they will protect you when Democrats won't. They can't afford to let Democrats look stronger on an issue that voters can easily understand. An Arab country that had money-laundering ties to terrorists and doesn't recognize Israel is controlling the Port of New York—"HELL NO," as Republican congresswoman Sue Myrick of North Carolina wrote in a letter to the president today. Republicans also pay no price for such flouting of the president, because Bush's approval ratings are so low. In fact, some believe that running from Bush may be the key to their 2006 electoral survival or 2008 presidential hopes.
Those political calculations may make sense for today, but in the long term, this fight will harm the GOP. Republicans can't distance themselves from Bush on security issues. He's not only the head of their party; he's the commander in chief. By pouncing on this issue so quickly and joining Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Republican leaders send a global message: They don't trust Bush. They don't trust him enough to even wait to understand the facts of the deal. They don't trust him enough to even worry that they might have their facts wrong and wind up embarrassed.
Maybe Republicans have valid reasons for not trusting Bush, but it's foolish for them to think they can separate their fortunes from his on this issue. When Republican-leaning voters go to bed at night, they don't find comfort in the fact that Bill Frist is protecting them. They pin their hopes on George Bush. If Bush is weakened, they're not likely to be comforted by the fact that Bill Frist is still at the helm of the Senate defending the homeland.
The squabble will also irritate the president. He's tired of congressional second-guessing—especially in a case like this where GOP leaders willfully refuse to acknowledge the complexity of global diplomacy and the value of global capitalism. You don't hear the deal's critics explaining who exactly will control port security if not Dubai Ports World. (And why are there not more pro-market conservative commentators pointing out that in the global war on terror we must embrace countries like the United Arab Emirates in the interest of winning hearts and minds in the Middle East?) The president did go too far when he hinted that critics were motivated by prejudice. This is similar to the administration's mistaken effort to turn Harriet Miers' conservative opponents into sexists. It will leave a lasting blemish on his party. If Bush was so quick to make such a serious claim about anti-Arab sentiment, he must have had broader grounds to do so. But that's what Republicans always accuse Democrats of doing—playing identity politics when they don't agree with your policies. Bush didn't like it very much when, after the administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Democrats charged that he didn't like blacks. Why does he hint at the same kind of thing now?
Sen. John McCain may be the only politician who might come out a winner from the port storm. He played the politics well, critiquing the deal but urging caution and prudence. That might help moderate his occasional reputation as a hothead. Of course, McCain doesn't have to look tough. He has standing on security issues that his colleagues and other 2008 hopefuls like Bill Frist don't.
So, how do congressional Republicans back down? The party needs another magical solution like the one that saved them from cannibalism over the Miers nomination. The president's nominee withdrew on the pretext that she didn't want to fight with Congress over access to her White House documents, and Republicans accepted that and stopped their attacks on the president. The face-saving out was first suggested by columnist Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer is a psychiatrist—who better to call on to mediate a family crisis? So, Charles, got any great ideas about ports?